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Church tours and trash talk

Friday 21st February

The image to the right is part of the Karnak Temple Complex situated just east of the River Nile in Luxor, Upper Egypt. Once upon a time the mighty columns shown in the picture held up the roof. There are 134 in all; more than in Notre Dame Cathedral, or St Peters Basilica in Rome. In pharaonic times people came to worship here. Like the Jews in the Old Testament they had a High Priest who entered the inner sanctuary of the temple and interceeded on behalf of the people. Such was the vastness of the temple complex at Karnak at one time there were no less than 80,000 priests.

People in Egypt no longer worship in temples like that at Karnak but they still meet to worship. As in most Middle Eastern countries they do this on a Friday; both Muslims and Christians alike. The current population of Egypt is 100 million - a milestone reached just this month. Of those 85 per cent are Muslim and the remaining 15 per cent are Christians.

Most familiar denominations are represented among the Christian population. There are Catholics, Anglicans, Brethren and Presbyterians as well as other smaller groups. In total those who follow these traditions make up around 5 per cent of the Christian population. The remaining 95 per cent are Coptic Orthodox who trace their roots back to the first century when tradition has it that St. Mark, the apostle brought the gospel to Egypt.

The call to prayer in Egypt like other countries with an Islamic culture is heard of course not only on a Friday but also through the week commencing every day just before dawn.

Most people’s picture of a mosque is as shown in this one above situated in downtown Cairo. Indeed there are many like this and many even bigger and grander. Others however are less imposing. Many are small and of no architectural significance. On Fridays however they are filled to overflowing. Those who cannot be accommodated inside for Friday prayers spill outside and kneel on their prayer mats on the footpath or the roadways themselves.

This tiny mosque is situated close to where I am staying in Zamalek and is built under a flyover in the middle of the central reservation of a dual carriageway.

Having been to the service in All Saints' Cathedral this morning I found myself for the first time in over a week with a free afternoon. After a brief lunch and protracted negotiations with a taxi driver I was on my way to the cliffs of Mokattam and the surrounding neighbourhood of Zabbaleen, otherwise known as Garbage City.

This locality in Eastern Cairo is home to 30,000 people, mostly Coptic Christians who make their livings entirely from the collection, sorting, and recycling of rubbish. The smell of the place is overwhelming. It is noisy crowded and choked with the fumes of lorries and vans piled high with sacks of waste trundling and lurching through the narrow potholed streets. Did I say potholes.. craters..!!

Situated in a cave high in the cliffs high above the city this is the largest church in the Middle East with seating for 20,000 people, more than the Kingspan Rugby Stadium at Ravenhill in Belfast.

Aside from St Simon the Tanner and Virgin Mary pictured above there are other churches forming part of this cliffside complex.

And most importantly of all for those from Garbage City who worship here and indeed for all Christians everywhere a rock hewn depiction of the discovery of the empty tomb on the first Easter Sunday.

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